As the Colorado Legislature continues to slash budgets, the state’s foster care system remains chronically underfunded. Something’s got to give, right? The thing is, if we don’t pay now, as the kids grow up, it could continue to cost us all a whole lot more than money. Just ask Erika Righter and Shawn Larson.

December 2010

One day this past summer, Shawn Larson sits in the dining room at the Crossing, a transitional housing complex owned by the Denver Rescue Mission. It’s lunch hour for the New Life Program, a rehabilitation program for men. The tables are filled with recovering addicts dressed in T-shirts and jeans and eating gelatinous slices of turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. It could be a high school, except for the random urine tests and pack-a-day smoking habits. Larson blends in.

He’s been on parole since December 2009, and in the New Life Program for a few months. The program’s participants focus on Bible studies and catch up on basic life skills. On any given day the computer lab is packed with grown men poking away at a keyboard, taking a Mavis Beacon typing test or setting up an e-mail account. Larson says he’s been sober for three years, although much of that time was spent behind bars on a drug charge.

His sandy blond hair is cropped close to his skull in a buzz cut, and most days, he wears a faded pair of jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt with the earbuds of his Walkman threaded up his back beneath his shirt. His arms are caramel-tan from long hours spent outside. His whole body is tight, so tense that veins bulge out on his forearms and distort the Harley-Davidson logo tattooed on his right arm and the word “Dokken” (one of his favorite metal bands) inked on the left arm.

He dug both tattoos into his arms himself, but had a professional trace over the Harley ink for $35 to clean up the edges. The Dokken logo helps to cover the scars from his teenage cutting. During the day he is either in Bible study or working in the program’s maintenance department laying down sod or chipping paint off curbs.

At night he plays drums and practices with a band, a hodgepodge assembly of whoever happens to be in the New Life Program. The third-floor practice room is as ramshackle as the players. There’s a plastic brown couch in one corner. An Alcoholics Anonymous book tossed aside on the floor. A sofa pillow is stuffed in the bass drum to act as a damper. There’s a new member in the group tonight: The old bass player missed a blood alcohol test and was booted out of the program. As the band starts to play, Larson peers out the windows that overlook the flat Eastern Plains. He’s chomping away on a stick of Wrigley’s gum, popping it out between his teeth in time with the music, both legs bouncing.

Grown-up Larson looks like a combination of actor Denis Leary and a bulldog puppy, with deep furrows across his brow and a halfway smile that, most often, looks like a grimace. It’s easy to imagine that this man was once a 17-year-old boy pacing at a bus stop, listening to U2, and hoping to start over. “I trusted him,” Larson says now of Brindle. “I believed in him. And he was one of the only people I believed in. And I have never believed in anyone as much since. I can’t find home anywhere else since.”

He may not be at home at the Crossing, but he seems content, now, at band practice. He banters with the new bass player between songs and sips on a mug of instant coffee. The lead singer launches into a contemporary Christian rock number, “Finally Home.” As they reach this, the last song of the night’s practice, Larson’s face is flushed and his eyelids droop. The lead guitarist starts to sing:

“I’m gonna wrap my arms around my daddy’s neck and tell him that I’ve missed him. / And tell him all about the man that I became, and hope that it pleased him. / There’s so much I want to say. There’s so much I want you to know. / When I finally make it home. When I finally make it home.”

Larson stops moving—for just a moment. Then he shoves his headphones into his ears, cranks the volume on some heavy metal song only he can hear and starts banging away on the drums.